Enlightened education of orphans transformed China arts and craftsmanship

Tan Weiyun
The Tushanwan Orphanage was a trailblazer in Shanghai’s embrace of advanced technologies in realms such as painting, printing and stained glass.
Tan Weiyun

Editor’s note:

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Shanghai. Once dubbed "the Paris of the East,” the city has evolved into a fusion of multiculturalism. Along the way, Shanghai has accumulated a repository of stories about the people and events that have shaped its history. Five areas of the city occupy pride of place in that journey: People’s Square, Jing’an Temple, Xujiahui, Lujiazui and Xintiandi. This series, a collaboration with Shanghai Local Chronicles Library, visits them all to follow in the footsteps of time.

Founded in the 1860s by French Jesuit missionaries, Tushanwan Orphanage was more than just a home for children without parents. It also was a groundbreaker in introducing modern concepts of education, including the role of craftsmanship training.

The facility’s workshops taught young students skills such as printing, bookbinding, painting, photography, metallurgy, fine metalwork, woodworking, clay sculpting and glassmaking.

Notably, innovative lessons in painting, printing and glassmaking helped usher in a new era in Chinese art and crafts.

The painting workshop was a cradle of Western painting in China. It marked the beginning of what was called the “Western Painting Spreading Eastward” movement, which influenced a generation of artists that came to define Chinese art on the global stage.

Masters such as painter Xu Beihong, who received part of his education there, and Zhang Chongren, who went on to study in Belgium and become the first Chinese sculptor, were among the luminaries whose creative visions were shaped within this incubator of talent.

Under the influence of Western culture, students received an early enlightenment that broadened their horizons of the world at large.

Over a century, more than 300 students studied painting in a rigorous curriculum of drawing, sketching, oils and watercolors, and different art styles.

The advent of Western painting techniques at the Shanghai institution influenced traditional brush and rice paper artists, leading to an integration of these new methods into their work. This fusion gave rise to what was called the Shanghai School of figure painting.

At the 1915 San Francisco World Expo, four paintings by Tushanwan artists, executed with Chinese watercolor materials on rice paper and employing Western sketching techniques, astonished the Western art world. They were subsequently acquired by the University of San Francisco, where they remain treasured exhibits at the Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History.

Enlightened education of orphans transformed China arts and craftsmanship
Ti Gong

A collotype printing machine is displayed at the Tushanwan Museum.

Concurrent with Shanghai’s opening as a treaty port to the West in the mid-19th century, Western missionaries introduced modern publishing and printing to the city, with the Tushanwan Printing House leading the way.

This facet of the orphanage quickly rose to prominence, employing advanced techniques like movable-type printing and lithography. The site was the first in modern China to adopt photocomposition.

Established in 1867, the printing house specialized in the production of religious items and books, including a significant collection of woodblock-printed Chinese religious texts.

Tushanwan’s adoption of copperplate, collotype and tricolor printing technologies contributed to the city’s emergence as the national center for printing and publication.

In 1875, the introduction of collotype printing, a gelatin-based photographic printing process invented by French chemist Alphonse Poitevin in 1855, produced images in a wide variety of tones without the need for half-tone screens.

In the early 20th century, the orphanage also pioneered phototypesetting technologies.

Orphans aged 12 or older not only learned valuable skills but also contributed to the operation of the printing house, which published more than 100 titles, including religious texts, educational materials and scientific publications.

Among the printing house’s more important publications was a comprehensive Latin-language course in Chinese literature by Italian missionary Angelo Zottoli (1826-1902), which served as a valuable resource for missionaries learning Chinese and remains one of the richest Latin translations of Chinese literary works.

Enlightened education of orphans transformed China arts and craftsmanship
Guo Changyao

A Tushanwan-made stained glass window in the Yongnian Building on Guangdong Road retains its color and brilliance.

Tushanwan’s innovative spirit found another remarkable outlet in the realm of stained glass. Its glassmaking workshop was hailed as the birthplace of modern stained glass in China.

By 1913, Tushanwan had introduced Western-style stained glass techniques. At the time, about 80 percent of the stained glass in Shanghai religious buildings, major businesses and financial institutions was manufactured at Tushanwan.

Today, some of the classic examples of that legacy survive. At the Xujiahui Cathedral, exquisite stained glass windows cast their timeless, vibrant beams of colored light across the terrazzo flooring, wooden benches and the figures of those in prayer.

Beyond religious structures, Tushanwan’s stained glass adorned various buildings, including banks and hotels, and even some daily-use craft items.

Unfortunately, much of the orphanage’s stained glass was destroyed. Some of the remaining pieces have been restored or replicated, but not quite to the quality of their originals.

Among the surviving works, the Yongnian (Mutual Life Insurance) Building on Guangdong Road, built in 1910, houses some of the most intact pieces of Tushanwan’s religious-themed stained glass. The building’s entrance features a dome mural made of mosaic inlays, a rarity in itself. Several stained glass windows depicting the Virgin Mary along the staircase facing the street still retain their color and brilliance.

Special Reports